By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2022 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 23, 2022
The postponed World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference will be held in-person at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters in the week of June 13, the organisation’s General Council decided today (February 23, 2022), a move that delegations hope will concentrate minds on reaching agreements.
“The precise dates still have to be determined,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said. This is partly because the WTO will want to minimise clashes with other events scheduled at around the same time in Geneva, such as the UN Human Rights Council on June 13–July 8.
The decision was taken by consensus — as is standard in the WTO — on the first day of a two-day formal meeting. It creates a new deadline for members to focus on.
Among the tasks on their list for the Ministerial Conference are negotiations to curb harmful fisheries subsidies and on agriculture, and an intellectual property waiver and non-binding declaration on the WTO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also proposed for discussion are reforming the WTO’s three key functions: negotiations, settling legal disputes, and implementing the agreements.
Officials say members were keen to reschedule the meeting as soon as possible because they felt a hard deadline was needed. Without it, the impetus in the WTO talks had slackened.
“Progress so far has been a disappointment,” one said. A deadline is needed because “that’s just how it goes” in the WTO.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Iweala-Okonjo urged members in the General Council meeting not to wait until the last minute to reach agreement on the outstanding issues.
Rockwell said some parts of today’s meeting were more positive than he had heard for a long time.
For example, General Council chair Dacio Castillo reported that agreement on the WTO’s non-binding response to the pandemic could be achieved if members focused on where they agreed and set aside the areas where they diverged, Rockwell said. But “I don’t want to get too carried away here,” he added.
The re-scheduled conference will be smaller and more “streamlined” than originally planned, because it will have to be held at the WTO’s headquarters.
The larger conference centre that was booked under the original Nov 30–Dec 3 schedule is unavailable. WTO members generally reject the alternative of holding the meeting online.
Rockwell said most of the arrangements would be unchanged, including Kazakhstan remaining as the co-host.
The conference was postponed indefinitely four days before it was due to start.
Castillo, who is Honduras’ ambassador, had also offered June 2–4 as an alternative date when he chaired an informal General Council meeting.
The final choice was based on members’ responses and further consultations.
Most delegations had said they preferred the mid-June dates, while some favoured June 2–4, according to a Geneva trade official.
The new dates for an in-person meeting are now possible because Switzerland eased most of its COVID-19 restrictions on February 17.
Swiss Ambassador Didier Chambovey told the informal meeting on February 22 that entry restrictions from most countries would be lifted, and ministers and delegates from the rest would have remaining restrictions waived for the Ministerial Conference.
Earliest feasible dates
The June dates are the earliest feasible because of the need for Switzerland to provide security and other arrangements, Castillo had told delegates. On other dates, they are tied up with other events, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 22-26 — also rescheduled.
Among the reasons why many delegations favoured the week of June 13 are a meeting of ministers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris the previous week, an official said.
As usual, trade ministers will meet on the sidelines.
Holding the WTO Ministerial Conference afterwards would allow input from the OECD side event, and it would be more convenient for ministers travelling long distances to combine the two in one trip, the official said.
But for some countries, the mid-June dates clash with other events. For example, Russia is hosting the St Petersburg Economic Forum, June 15–18. Nevertheless, the mid-June option was picked in the spirit of solidarity, Rockwell said.
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Updates: February 23 — updating with the decision
Image credit: WTO headquarters | Peter Ungphakorn CC BY-SA 4.0